When a peaceful protest becomes a riot

The broad coverage of the First Amendment is one of the greatest rights we have as citizens of the U.S. because it can take many forms, even those that have not yet been realized. However, it’s important to note that this right isn’t all encompassing and that, as a nation, we must acknowledge the inherent dangers that free speech can present to the general public.

The demonstrations in Anaheim, California this week are just a taste of free speech gone bad. The problem? The transition from peaceful demonstration to riot is an issue that is mostly ignored in political and social discourse that justifies the First Amendment right to assemble and protest. The demonstrations began as a result of Anaheim police officers shooting an unarmed man known to have a criminal record. The sixth fatal shooting by the police department this year, many are outraged that little has been done to investigate and curb the department’s onslaught of shootings against its own residents. As people organized in the streets outside city hall for four nights in a row, Tuesday marked the largest and most aggressive protest as some of the nearly 600 participants began hurling rocks and bottles at police. Authorities arrested two dozen protestors in connection with the violence.

What many fail to understand is that a protest loses its legitimacy the instant it needs to result in violence in order to have its message heard. The great Mahatma Ghandi forever immortalized the notion of a peaceful protest which, to his credit, is the only reason India gained its independence from Britain to become its own sovereign power. Likewise, the people of Anaheim could learn from his discipline in its efforts to engage law enforcement. Discussion is a two way street — it needs both parties to understand what the problem is, and both parties to negotiate a resolution. A highly emotional response to a situation in which there is more speculation than fact is a recipe for disaster waiting to be served. Those individuals who stand at the forefront of the movement, defending the unlawful actions of their fellow demonstrators against the authorities are in no position to be leading, and ought to be removed or incarcerated for inciting civil unrest. Simply put, these individuals are the true agents of chaos and a threat to society. They answer only to others sharing their agenda, and corrupt the innocent into joining the growing mob. Yet, to the average citizen, these individuals look as entitled and capable of protesting their beliefs as everyone else present. The misconception persists: the mere fact that the group assembled in no way communicates their message. In fact, assembly is the form of ‘mobocracy’ that the framers of the Constitution were hoping to avoid. Instead, discontent is best communicated when it is calm, methodical, and persuasive and directed at those  most responsible for their actions.

While it is debatable whether the police shootings in Anaheim were justified in and of themselves, it seems fair to say that even an unjustified action from law enforcement does not merit identical action from the people. An individual can always make mistakes, but society must be better than the individual. So let justice prevail, but do it properly. Allow the city to hire a private investigator to determine what faults are underlying and get the U.S. District Attorney’s Office involved. And if that doesn’t work, then go after the city council itself. Go after those that corrupt the law, those that legislate against effective checks on police, and those that turn their administrative heads the other way. But don’t blame those just trying to do their job. People of Anaheim, don’t compromise your morals or your city rules that you helped establish. Free speech won’t have a future if you ruin it for the rest of us trying to employ it the right way.

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